With a sound that fuses jazz, electronica, hip-hop and more, Tom Misch has created something truly unique. Alex Flood meets him to find out what’s next
Halfway through Tom Misch’s set at Camden’s Jazz Cafe in February, the laptop stops working and the venue falls silent. “Sorry about this, guys,” says the south London native as his bandmates cluster around a MacBook. “I guess I’ll just play guitar for a bit.” The crowd roars, a spotlight descends and Misch begins a blissful 15-minute solo. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy and the crisis is averted. Or is it?
“I was actually trying not to cry, that night,” confesses Misch, sipping tea in his parents’ cosy Dulwich living room a month later. “My relationship was on its last legs and I was really emotional. Me and my girlfriend broke up soon after.” His debut album, ‘Geography’, echoes that emotional trauma. Written prior to the break-up, its themes of romance and longing have taken on new meaning since, Tom says. ‘Movie’, the record’s soporific lead cut, is all about heartbreak and missed opportunities, while ‘You’re On My Mind’ tells the story of an unrequited love. “It’s a funny one,” he admits. “When I was writing those tracks I was still in a relationship. But now they’re really relevant. It makes playing them feel more real.”
Born into a “bohemian” family — “everyone’s an artist, musician or actor” — Tom found music came easily. At four-years-old he picked up a fiddle, before the guitar took over later. An A-level in Music Tech taught him to “make beats” on a computer, while SoundCloud provided a platform for his obsessive mix-making. Eventually, woozy jam ‘Follow’ got picked up by viral YouTube channel Majestic and blew up online. “I took several big steps in my early career and this was the main one,” he says. “That was the point where I was like, “Shit! This is real!”
In 2014, he enrolled in a Jazz Guitar course at Trinity College, Greenwich. But dropped out after a year. “I never really had any intention of finishing,” he admits. “I love jazz but I hated studying it. That wasn’t the funnest year of my life.” Most of his school friends had left the capital for uni by then and Tom had become “completely engrossed” in his work to the point of stress. “I was always listening to music on headphones or working on something on my computer,” he explains. “I realised it wasn’t healthy to be so reliant on creating stuff. I needed to be more sociable.”
“When I finished ‘Geography’, I kinda felt like, ‘fuck making music for a couple of years’”
After some time out travelling in Vietnam, he returned to London revitalised, just as “everything was taking off.” Tom’s unique fusion of jazz, electronica and hip-hop had always connected with people, but it was a small change that took things to the next level. “I don’t think I have a great voice,” he reveals, “but I started singing on my tracks and they did a lot better. So I thought, ‘let’s give this a go then!’”
Several EPs followed — all released on his own Beyond The Groove label — and the pedigree of his collaborators improved considerably. Since dropping ultra-chill mixtape ‘Beat Tape 2′ in October 2015, Tom has supported Kaytranada (“I was starstruck”), exchanged tracks with Anderson .Paak (“his messages are incomprehensibly abbreviated”) and on debut album ‘Geography’, he’s teamed up with ‘90s icons De La Soul.
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“I originally wanted Q-Tip [from A Tribe Called Quest] to rap on ‘It Runs Through Me’,” Tom says. “But I kept sending him the track and he’d say ‘I’ll listen to it’ and wouldn’t get back to me. Eventually, De La Soul got in touch and I went with them.” It turned out to be a good move. The bouncy, samba-flavoured track fits perfectly with De La Soul’s throwback flow and is a record highlight. But it’s still not the most important creative partnership in Tom’s career.
“I first heard Loyle Carner on SoundCloud in 2014,” says Tom of his laidback partner in crime. “I could tell he was from south London and his stuff blew my mind.” Back then, Loyle didn’t have a following, but Tom did. So he messaged him and asked if he wanted to “link up.” Four years later and they’ve collaborated on at least five tracks and played multiple shows together. For Tom, it’s a friendship rather than a professional agreement and Loyle’s been a positive influence. “I’m always losing shit, but Loyle’s responsible,” he confesses.”He even taught me how to cook a really nice pasta sauce. It was a tomato kind of vibe but there were some secret ingredients that I won’t share…” Would they ever release a joint album? “Definitely! We have lots of stuff in the works but I need to get mine sorted first,” he says. “We definitely wanna do a little joint tape together though.”
Their closeness is symptomatic of the south London scene. King Krule lives “two minutes down the road” and Tom’s been in the studio with local soul prodigies Jordan Rakei and Carmody. It’s an “exciting” time for the area, he says. But not everyone’s destined to hook up: “I don’t feel a connection with Dave or Rejjie Snow so much, even though we live in the same place,” Tom explains. “I can see Rejjie rapping over one of my beats but I’m not big on his style. It’s more soulful, organic-sounding than my music.”
On the surface it might seem like Tom actively seeks out big names, but he insists it’s not for publicity. Press nights “aren’t really his thing” and the goal “isn’t to get as big as I can”. Of course, if the invite is “credible, like the Mercury Awards,” then he’ll attend. But generally, the softly-spoken 22-year-old is happy to stay out of the limelight.
“Me and Loyle Carner definitely wanna do a little joint tape together though.”
In fact, if Tom has his way we won’t be seeing much of him at all after this year. “When I finished ‘Geography’, I kinda felt like, ‘fuck making music for a couple of years,’” he tells me. “I just want to do other stuff now.” Like what? “Maybe some bar work. Maybe work in a cafe. I want to go to uni and study something — probably geography.” When I tell him that sounds strange — to take a break just as everything is going so well — he grins, knowingly. “It’s just an idea. I probably will make another album, but,” he adds, “I don’t want to be set in music my whole life. I want to experience some of my youth not being Tom Misch, away from the expectations.” Is that a worry for him — the constant demand for attention from fans? “It’s really nice to get messages,” he says carefully. “But I get a lot of personal ones, some quite heavy, and it’s a bit of a pressure.”
Even if Tom wanted to run off, he has to take care of business first. ‘Geography’ hits shelves this week — I’ve just watched him hand-sign 1,000 vinyl copies for fans — and by the time this piece is published, he’ll have wrapped a sold-out UK tour. Then it’s off to the States for a 13-date stint before taking in some European festivals this summer. It’s a heavy schedule, but one you know he’ll ace.
It’s at this point that our conversation ends. Tom’s over-excitable puppy Dilla — named after his idol, the legendary beatmaker J Dilla — has just wrapped his jaws playfully around my fingers and it seems I’ve outstayed my welcome. But before I go, I want to know who’s next on the Tom Misch collaboration hit list. King Krule? Kaytranada? Kanye, perhaps? “There’s definitely some stuff in the pipeline, but I dunno if I can tell you,” he teases. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Geography is out now via Beyond The Groove